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Labriola on free agency decisions

Posted Mar 4, 2014

Free agency starts March 11, but the choice of Woodley or Worilds seems to have been made

PHOTOS: Top Free Agent Photos

As General Manager Kevin Colbert has said, the first step is getting into compliance, and based on the events of Feb. 28, that has been made easier for the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was on that last Friday in February when the NFL announced that the 2014 salary cap would be set at $133 million per team, an increase of $10 million from last year’s number.

That’s their target, and their deadline is 4 p.m. on Tuesday, March 11.

“You obviously have to be in compliance,” said Colbert, “(but then) are we $1 under the cap or are we $3 million under the cap? We won’t know that really until we get to March 11. You hope to have maneuverability at that stage.”

Colbert also has said the three ways for the Steelers to get into compliance and create that maneuverability would be via extensions, re-structurings, and terminations. The team has yet to make any announcements on any of those fronts regarding any of its players, and with this unexpected $10 million cushion it may not have to do so – beyond the obvious – in advance of next Tuesday.

THE OBVIOUS
Despite some fans perceiving the situation at outside linebacker to fall under the category of obvious, it’s not Levi Brown obvious.

When the Steelers sent a conditional draft pick to the Arizona Cardinals on Oct. 2 for tackle Levi Brown, this was what was involved:

The Cardinals picked up the entirety of Brown’s 2013 salary, minus the prorated veteran minimum amount the Steelers would pay him for the rest of that season. Because Brown didn’t play a snap, the Steelers owe the Cardinals nothing in the way of a draft pick, but Brown is under contract – at the original numbers negotiated by Arizona – for 2014-16.

Those Arizona numbers are big numbers, and the Steelers will save themselves in the neighborhood of $6 million by cutting Brown, which can happen at any time between now and March 11. Maybe, just maybe the Steelers take a flyer on Brown for another year at the veteran minimum, but that would be a move for later in the offseason.

THE OLBs
LaMarr Woodley or Jason Worilds. That has been the multi-million dollar question, and the Steelers’ use of the transition tag on Worilds indicates they have made their decision. The franchise tag for Worilds would have been $11.455 million, with the transition designation coming in at $9.754 million. There is no compensation to the Steelers associated with the transition designation – only a right of refusal – and so the move is about buying more time to get a deal done.

During the three seasons from 2008-10, Woodley had 35 sacks, plus nine more combined in the 2008 and 2010 runs to the Super Bowl. During the three seasons from 2011-13, he missed 14 games with hamstring, ankle and calf injuries, and Woodley will be 30 in November.

Worilds (pictured above) came to the team via a No. 2 pick in the 2010 draft, and his development was slowed by the lockout in 2011 and then by a nagging wrist injury. In 2012, he was a fill-in starter for both Woodley and James Harrison; in 2013, he ended up starting 11 games and recording eight sacks and two forced fumbles. And Worilds turned 26 on March 3.

The Steelers will have to absorb the full $9.754 million transition tender on their salary cap at 4 p.m. on March 11, unless a long-term deal can get worked out between now and then, and their willingness to do that is a strong indication of what they think of Worilds as a player moving forward. And also of how they perceive Woodley as a player moving forward, because even though Colbert said it's possible to keep both of them it's not a very realistic scenario that the Steelers actually do keep both of them.

Because Worilds looked more comfortable last season in Woodley’s old spot on the left side, and because Jones is being groomed for the spot on the right side, the Steelers’ move to tag Worilds on the last day available for such a move says they have chosen between the two.

Of course Worilds wants to be paid, but just as important he wants to be somewhere where he is an NFL starter and is treated accordingly. A $9.754 million tender is a strong indication the Steelers now see him that way.

YOU NEED AT LEAST 3 TO PLAY A 3-4
Over the course of the bulk of the 2013 season, the Steelers used five defensive linemen. Three of them are set to become unrestricted free agents next Tuesday.

Ziggy Hood, Brett Keisel, and Al Woods are the three UFAs-in-waiting, and if the Steelers are unable to bring back at least two they’ll be looking at some serious turnover at the top of the depth chart here.

The Steelers pursued Woods for a season-and-a-half before securing him via a waiver claim from Seattle on Nov. 9, 2011. Since then Woods has worked his way up the food chain, and his ability to play both end and nose in the Steelers’ defense makes him valuable for his versatility. It could be that Woods would be swayed – either to stay, or to leave for another team – by a starting job. Whether the Steelers believe he’s worth that figures to be the first part of the decision to be made on him.

The issue with Keisel is his age, 36 in September; with Hood it’s the question of whether he has been mis-cast all along in a 3-4. The issue with the Steelers is that if they lose all three of these players, the only ones behind Cam Heyward and Steve McLendon with ANY experience would be Brian Arnfelt (two games in uniform) and Hebron Fangupo (four games in uniform), and neither of them has made a tackle in the NFL yet.

WHERE IS COTCHERY ON LIST OF PRIORITIES?
When Team President Art Rooney II was asked for his list of priorities during free agency, the only player he mentioned by name was Jason Worilds Based solely on contributions made to the team in 2013, Jerricho Cotchery could be close behind.

He caught 46 passes for 602 yards and a career-high 10 touchdowns, but Cotchery is one of those players who is more than his statistics. A 10-year veteran who will be 32 in June, Cotchery has said he enjoys playing for the Steelers and would prefer to finish his career with the team.

If both sides realize that what Cotchery contributes on the field and brings to the locker room has value, but that he isn’t a full-time starter anymore, a deal should be able to be worked out. And this is one of those instances where both parties truly are better off staying together.

THE ONLY RB UNDER CONTRACT WAS A ROOKIE IN 2013
As Bill Cowher used to say, “That’s an accurate statement,” as far as anyone on the roster besides Le’Veon Bell having game experience with the Steelers. That’s because Will Johnson is a fullback, and Jonathan Dwyer, Felix Jones, and LaRod Stephens-Howling all will be free agents come March 11.

Having found Bell is most important, but backups and complements must be added to the depth chart. If the Steelers believe Dwyer indeed has matured into an accountable professional, then he would be a good candidate for the job as Bell’s backup. Good with the ball in his hands, Dwyer also returned from being waived last August with an enthusiasm and energy he had not shown to that point in his pro career.

If Stephens-Howling hasn’t lost his quicks to that ACL injury sustained in last year’s opener, he would be a good candidate for the job as the backfield’s complement. Understands the outside-zone scheme, is a capable receiver, is as tough as his size allows him to be. But if he isn’t fast anymore, the Steelers may find it’s best to look elsewhere.

HOW ABOUT SOME STABILITY ON THE O-LINE, FOR A CHANGE?
What new offensive line coach Mike Munchak inherits is a depth chart with the top six spots filled. Kelvin Beachum, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, and Mike Adams are the six. The next three guys are set to become UFAs. Fernando Velasco, Cody Wallace, and Guy Whimper are the three.

Whimper was a serviceable injury replacement at both guard and tackle; Cody Wallace was a waiver-wire pickup in early September as a guard, and he ended up starting four games at center during which the Steelers were 3-1; and Velasco plain-and-simply saved the unit by signing after Pouncey was lost and starting immediately at center, where he played with distinction for 11 games until tearing an Achilles in Baltimore.

If it’s possible to re-sign them all, do it. There is no NFL team whose seventh, eighth, and ninth offensive linemen are better than Velasco, Wallace, and Whimper.

OTHER TEAMS’ FREE AGENTS
In light of the decision to use the transition tag on Worilds and the automatic $9.754 million hit to the salary cap, the Steelers’ ability to have some maneuverability on March 11 figures to be compromised. The move indicates the team thinks more of having time to get a deal done with Worilds than it values the cap space to go after other teams’ players at the start of free agency.

If the Steelers can create some room to make moves, maybe they look to do something similar to the Ryan Clark signing back in 2006. The Clark signing added an in-his-prime, starting-caliber player at a position of need without breaking the bank. Now could be the time to try that again.

In 2003, the starters in the secondary included Brent Alexander, Mike Logan, and Dewayne Washington, with Deshea Townsend as a starting cornerback for the final five games of a 6-10 season. Two years later, the Steelers’ starters for Super Bowl XL were Troy Polamalu, Chris Hope, Ike Taylor, and Townsend. It’s time to re-make the top of the depth chart here again, but do the Steelers already have the players in house as they did back then?

Ten interceptions in each of the past two seasons is woefully inadequate, and going to different personnel is the only reasonable way to expect to change it. How deeply the changes go figure to be determined by the market, because there are a number of interesting defensive backs set to become UFAs. And once the initial flurry of signings end, how many of those defensive backs still will be looking for a place to land?

 

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